Two South Africans were contaminated by the new coronavirus while serving as crew members aboard a cruise ship that was quarantined for three weeks in Japan, officials said Friday.
The pair, the first South Africans confirmed to have the virus, are being cared for in Japan but they do not show symptoms of the illness linked to COVID-19, South Africa’s health ministry said.
The government was informed by Tokyo that there were 12 South African crew members working on the Princess Diamond cruise ship when it was hit by COVID-19 and that two had tested positive, the ministry said.
“They are currently being treated in Japan and the latest reports indicate that they are currently asymptomatic.”
Until now, no one in South Africa has been officially confirmed to have the virus.
The authorities in Pretoria announced Thursday that the 132 of their citizens will be repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
Officially, only three people have been contaminated on the African continent — one in Egypt, one in Algeria and one in Nigeria. None has died.
The new coronavirus has contaminated more than 80,000 people and cost the lives of nearly 3,000 people worldwide, the vast majority in China, according to the latest tally by AFP based on official sources.
Japan on Sunday confirmed the first case of a former Japanese passenger of a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship testing positive for the disease after initially receiving a clean bill of health.
More than 20 foreigners evacuated from the ship have also tested positive after returning home.
The cases raise questions about the effectiveness of the quarantine on board the ship and fears for the nearly 1,000 former passengers allowed to move freely around Japan.
The woman in her 60s returned to her home in Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo by train after disembarking the Diamond Princess Wednesday, but she developed fever and tested positive on Saturday, a local official told AFP.
Further fuelling criticism of the Japanese government measures, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato was forced to apologise after it emerged that 23 passengers were released without even being tested during the quarantine for the virus that has affected more than 130 in Japan.
“There has been a judgement that those who disembarked after testing negative had no problem, but it has now become clear that those people can turn positive,” Tochigi governor Tomokazu Fukuda told reporters, urging “additional measures” to contain the spread.
From Wednesday, Japanese authorities allowed passengers who had been in quarantine on board since February 5, tested negative, and showed no symptoms, to disembark, recommending only they limit trips outside and wear a mask in public.
Around 970 passengers were released under these conditions, according to local media.
A further 100 former passengers, who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, have disembarked for quarantine on land.
Still left on the ship are some foreigners waiting for special charter flights home and some 1,000 crewmembers — most of whom were not placed in isolation as they were needed to operate the Diamond Princess.
Critics suspect they were inadvertently spreading the virus throughout the ship, which saw more than 600 cases of the potentially deadly COVID-19 disease.
Kato has defended Japan’s on-board quarantine, telling a TV programme Saturday there was no medical facility large enough to admit more than 3,000 people at once.
Separately, Japan has confirmed at least 132 cases of infection including returnees from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the new virus, but how people got infected was not clear in some cases.
Amid lingering fears over the spread of the virus, the popular Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, featuring the works of Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki, said Sunday it would close from Tuesday through March 17.
Many countries evacuated their citizens from the ship, suggesting they had doubts about the effectiveness of the quarantine.
Seven Australians later tested positive for the virus after being placed in quarantine on home soil.
Meanwhile, 18 repatriated Americans and one Israeli who returned home from the ship have tested positive, authorities from the two countries announced Friday.
Kato has said those who were repatriated included people who would not be permitted to disembark if they had stayed in Japan, because their test results were not available yet or because they tested positive or they had close contact with the infected.
However, infectious diseases specialist Kentaro Iwata has said the situation on the ship was “completely chaotic” and violated quarantine procedures, in blunt criticism rarely seen in Japanese officialdom.
The Kobe University professor later said he had heard from a colleague on board that quarantine procedures had improved, but still recommended that all those disembarking the ship should be monitored for at least 14 days and should avoid contact with others.
Japan said on Monday it would cancel a public gathering to celebrate the birthday of new Emperor Naruhito, as fears grow over the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.
“In light of various situations, we have decided to cancel the visit by the general public to the palace for His Majesty’s birthday,” the imperial household agency said in a statement a day after the government warned people to avoid crowds and “non-essential gatherings.”
“His Majesty’s appearance in the morning, as well as the public signing of the greeting book, will be cancelled.”
At least 60 people in Japan have so far been diagnosed with the virus, with Health Minister Katsunobu Kato warning on Sunday that the nation was “entering a new phase” of the outbreak.
“We want to ask the public to avoid non-urgent, non-essential gatherings. We want elderly and those with pre-existing conditions to avoid crowded places,” he said.
The birthday gathering on February 23 was cancelled as local media reported that the amateur section of the Tokyo Marathon, scheduled for March 1, would be cancelled.
“We have no formal decision to announce yet. We are studying and once a decision is made we will announce it, by today,” a spokeswoman for the organisers told AFP.
The birthday celebration for Emperor Naruhito was to be the first since he took the throne last year.
The last time the gathering was cancelled was in 1996, after hostages were taken at the Japanese embassy in Peru during an event to mark the monarch’s birthday.
Japan’s health minister on Sunday urged the public to avoid crowds and “non-essential gatherings”, including notoriously packed commuter trains, to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading in the country.
Katsunobu Kato warned the nation was “entering a new phase” in the outbreak of the virus, which has infected nearly 60 people in Japan so far.
“We want to ask the public to avoid non-urgent, non-essential gatherings. We want elderly and those with pre-existing conditions to avoid crowded places,” Kato said after a meeting of a panel of experts.
“I think it’s important that we exercise Japan’s collective strength. We wish to ask the Japanese people for their cooperation and it will take everyone being united to tackle this infectious disease,” he told a press conference.
Kato said cases with no clear transmission chains and involving people who have not travelled to China, where the outbreak began, meant Japan was entering a new stage.
The government will draft fresh guidelines for doctors about when to suspect possible coronavirus infections and for ordinary citizens to know when to seek medical care.
Japan has been pushing Tokyo residents to try telecommuting or avoid rush hour commutes to ease traffic congestion during the summer Tokyo Olympic Games.
Kato said the government will reiterate its calls on people to try those measures to ease spread of the virus.
The comments come after a spate of new infections were confirmed over the weekend, raising the total number of cases inside Japan to 59.
Those numbers exclude hundreds of cases aboard a cruise ship, as well as a quarantine officer who tested people on the boat.
Most infected individuals seem to experience mild conditions similar to the common cold and may not realise that they have the disease, risking possibly spreading it to others, said Takaji Wakita, chief of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who headed the expert panel.
“It is expected that domestic infections will continue,” Wakita said, adding that Japan was at an early stage of the spread.
The number of people infected with the deadly new coronavirus on a quarantined ship off Japan has risen to 355, the country’s health minister said Sunday, as the United States, Canada and Hong Kong prepare to repatriate their residents on board.
The figure is a jump of 70 cases from a government tally released Saturday and comes as Katsunobu Kato voiced worries that the rising infection count among the nation’s general population could mean the virus’s spread has entered a new phase.
“So far, we have conducted tests for 1,219 individuals. Of those, 355 people tested positive,” Kato told a roundtable discussion for public broadcaster NHK on conditions aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The vessel has been in quarantine since February 5 at the port of Yokohama near Tokyo, and Japan’s efforts to control the viral infections on board have prompted international concern.
The ship was carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew from more than 50 countries and territories when it docked and was placed in isolation, after authorities found a passenger who got off in Hong Kong during the voyage had tested positive for the virus.
Japanese officials continued to find new infections among the passengers and crew and rushed them to local hospitals, while others have been told to stay inside their cabins during the 14-day quarantine period set to end Wednesday.
The US was preparing Sunday to evacuate some of its citizens but said those repatriated will go through another two-week quarantine period at home.
An on-board announcement late Sunday said Americans choosing to leave should get ready, according to tweets from passengers.
“Disembarkation will begin at approximately 9 pm (1200 GMT),” the announcement said, asking the group to place their luggage outside their cabin doors.
Japan’s Self-Defence Forces will use about 20 buses to transport the evacuees to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, according to TV Asahi.
“Based on the high number of COVID-19 cases identified on board the Diamond Princess, the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members on board are at high risk of exposure,” the US embassy said in a letter to its citizens on the boat.
Hong Kong has also said it will offer its 330 city residents onboard the chance to take a charter flight back.
Canada announced a similar decision to repatriate its nationals, while Australia and Taiwan are considering such a move, according to local media reports.
Japan has not been able to test all those onboard due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower, which are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus on land.
But the health ministry said Saturday that passengers older than 70 are being examined and those testing negative and in good health will be allowed to leave the ship from Wednesday.
Tests on younger passengers were expected to start Sunday and healthy people will be allowed to get off after Wednesday, it said.
Meanwhile, Japan has seen 53 infections across the nation, including a dozen new cases reported on Saturday and 13 cases among more than 760 Japanese nationals and their relatives repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Kato said Japan will boost efforts to encourage people with possible infections to quickly seek medical care.
“If you look at the figures, we are seeing changing situations compared with before,” Kato said on the NHK show.
“What we have to think about now is preventing cases from becoming severe and preventing deaths.”
Americans will be removed from a cruise ship quarantined off Japan and flown home, the US embassy said Saturday as dozens of more cases of the new coronavirus were diagnosed on board.
At least 285 people on the Diamond Princess have contracted the illness but hundreds of passengers and crew have not yet been tested as they wait in a quarantine that was scheduled to end February 19.
In a message to Americans, the embassy said the US government “recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that US citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring”.
The remarks were later echoed by a US state department spokesperson, who confirmed that US citizens should return.
The embassy warned that those who come back will have to undergo another 14 days of quarantine when they arrive in the United States.
A chartered flight will arrive in Japan on Sunday, but it was not immediately clear when it would leave. The message said the flight will land at Travis Air Force Base in California, with some passengers continuing to a second air base in Texas.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK said 400 Americans were on board the cruise ship and the plane would leave Tokyo’s Haneda airport as soon as early Monday.
“Passengers will be screened for symptoms and we are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight,” the message said.
“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time,” it warned.
The Japanese government was arranging special embarkation procedures for US citizens taking the chartered flight, an official said, adding that “a certain number” of other countries have also shown interest in similar evacuation measures.
While some Americans on the ship have urged their government to extract them from the boat, others on board criticised the plan.
“Incredibly disappointed that the U.S. Government has decided to throw a monkey wrench into the quarantine we have maintained here on board the Diamond Princess,” tweeted Matt Smith, an American lawyer.
“The U.S. Government… wants to take us off without testing, fly us back to the U.S. with a bunch of other untested people, and then stick us in 2 more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?”
Quarantine timeline in doubt
There were more than 3,700 people on the ship when it arrived off the Japanese coast in early February. It was placed in quarantine after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive for the newly named COVID-19.
Those diagnosed on board have been removed to local hospital, with people remaining on the ship told that their quarantine would be over on February 19, two weeks from when it officially began.
But a message broadcast on the ship by the captain on Saturday night cast doubt on that timeline.
“The Japanese government has informed us that they may start a new testing process for guests beginning February 18,” the message said, warning that it would take several days to complete and results would not be available for around three days.
“So guests who are tested on February 18 and have negative test results may be able to disembark beginning February 21,” the message said.
Those who had close contact with anyone who tested positive would have to restart their quarantine from the date of their last close contact, he added.
And crew on board will go into a new quarantine period once the passengers have left the ship, though details of how long that would last were not immediately clear, the broadcast said.
Japan’s government has begun allowing elderly passengers on the ship in poor health to leave and finish their quarantine on land.
Those on board have been mostly confined to their cabins and required to wear masks and keep their distance from others during brief outings on deck.
On Saturday, the health ministry confirmed another 12 infections in Japan, including taxi drivers in Tokyo and patients at a western Japanese hospital where two doctors have already tested positive.
Excluding the cases on the ship, and an infected quarantine officer, Japanese authorities have so far diagnosed at least 52 people with the virus, which has killed more than 1,500 and infected at least 66,000 in China.
Passengers on a cruise ship that was turned away from ports around Asia over fears they could be carrying the new coronavirus finally began disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.
Cambodia’s strongman premier Hun Sen welcomed around 100 tourists who were handed flowers and scarves as they stepped ashore after an uncertain two weeks at sea.
The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 2,257 passengers and crew on a 14-day cruise around East Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and ending on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.
But the vessel was barred by Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears it was carrying someone with a new virus that has now killed around 1,400 people and sickened 64,000, mostly in China.
Cambodia — a staunch Beijing ally that receives huge sums of Chinese money every year — announced this week that the boat could dock in Sihanoukville.
Dozens of jubilant passengers took advantage of their new-found freedom and visited a nearby beach, while some hugged Hun Sen — Cambodia’s ruler for 35 years — as they disembarked. One man even kissed the ground.
“Cambodia pays more attention to human rights… we respect the rights of the more than 2,000 people on the boat,” Hun Sen said, relishing the rare positive focus on leadership more commonly hammered for rights abuses.
“We don’t have wealth like a rich country but we have sympathy for the passengers stranded on the ship.”
All passengers will be allowed to disembark, Hun Sen said, after no cases of the coronavirus were found aboard.
– Solidarity –
Christina Kerby — who has been posting light-hearted updates from the ship since the ordeal started — said she was “in tears” over the warm reception.
“The show of support is overwhelming,” she tweeted.
Cambodia receives billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure and investment from China, which dispenses it with no questions asked over human rights abuses in the country.
Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving leader, has been vocal in his praise of Beijing’s handling of the epidemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Unlike most Western nations, he refused to evacuate citizens from the epicentre, insisting that Cambodians should show their support for the Chinese.
Last week he travelled to Beijing to meet with Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping in a show of solidarity.
The apparent act of compassion over the Westerdam by Hun Sen follows the partial withdrawal by the European Union of trade benefits to some Cambodian industries over the kingdom’s woeful rights record.
The fate of the Westerdam is in sharp contrast to the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined off Japan where more than 200 people gave been infected by the virus.
Another 44 people onboard a cruise ship moored off Japan’s coast have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the country’s health minister said Thursday.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the 44 new cases were from another 221 new tests. They raise the number of infections detected on the Diamond Princess to 218, in addition to a quarantine officer who also tested positive for the virus.
Kato said authorities now want to move elderly people off the ship if they test negative for the virus, offering to put them in government-designated lodging.
“We wish to start the operation from tomorrow or later,” Kato told reporters.
Of the newly diagnosed infections, 43 are passengers, and one a member of the crew.
The Diamond Princess has been moored off Japan since February 3, after it emerged that a former passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong last month had tested positive for the virus now named COVID-19.
The ship was placed into quarantine shortly afterwards and authorities have asked passengers and crew to remain on board until February 19.
Those who have tested positive for the new virus have been taken off the ship to medical facilities, but questions have been raised about whether the quarantine on the ship is working, with dozens of new cases diagnosed almost daily.
Passengers are confined to cabins and required to wear masks and keep their distance from each other when they are allowed out for brief periods on open decks.